Panathlon has exploded during the pandemic in the Bolton area and impacted hundreds of children with SEND at a time of acute need.

Our Virtual Programme has become embedded in the area in the 2020/21 academic year, with 10 primary schools (150 SEND pupils in total) and eight secondary schools (226 SEND pupils) taking part in ten-pin bowling, new-age kurling, football, cricket and outdoor games.

As well as schools, the programme has reached another venue in the area and its impact there has been wonderful to witness. Derian House Children’s Hospice in Chorley have engaged day care and residential children in the Virtual Panathlon activities.

Debbie Davies, who has coordinated Panathlon’s growth in Bolton, said: “It’s great that Derian House has engaged with us because they have obviously been hit very hard by the pandemic.

“Those children aren’t necessarily in full-time education but why shouldn’t they get the opportunity to compete just like their peers would?”

Derian House

Pre-Covid, children from Derian House had participated in some external Panathlon events including Bolton and Greater Manchester boccia championships. The Derian House team were one of three Bolton teams to qualify for the Regional Under-19 finals in Liverpool.

“Whenever we put on school events they bring a team, along with their care workers to meet the participants’ needs. The Virtual Panathlon activities have enabled us to maintain that provision for them through the pandemic, which I think has been a great source of support during a particularly difficult time for children and staff.”

Debbie has regularly lent sport equipment to Derian House but they have now put in a successful bid with Sport England to secure their own. “That’s wonderful as they wouldn’t have done that if they hadn’t totally embraced Panathlon,” explains Debbie.

Debbie’s hard work and local contacts with schools and School Games Organisers has enabled Virtual Panathlon to flourish in Bolton despite the ravages of Covid in the area. Debbie is Disability Development Officer for Bolton Wanderers in the Community, with her role part-funded by Panathlon.

Debbie said: “Bolton was heavily hit with Covid so there were a lot of children isolating, but a big positive for me is that even through all that uncertainty, schools were still really supportive of the programme. We’ve been able to build relationships that we previously didn’t have when the world was going at a faster pace.”

Working with the SGOs, Debbie matched the weekly Panathlon competition programme to the area’s overall (non-SEND) sport calendar for the summer term, so Panathlon’s cricket programme, for example, ran alongside cricket for mainstream pupils. “Where there were other sports that we didn’t have, I tried to marry it with something similar such as target games so we were offering those SEN children something valuable and competitive which gave them some consistency during a turbulent time,” Debbie explains.

When pupils were forced to isolate and bubbles went down due to positive Covid tests, schools delayed holding competitions and registering their scores, or played simply for participation, but were still sent medals and certificates. Many schools mixed their SEND and non-SEND pupils in the same teams, but only sent in results achieved by the SEND children.

Participants at Ladybridge School in Bolton receive their Panathlon certificates

As Zoe Makin, sports coach at Oxford Grove Primary School in Bolton, said: ‘’The kids really loved the inclusivity of the Panathlon cricket event as we ran it as a whole-class competition with our SEN pupils incorporated into their respective class teams. Thank you so much for organising a great day.”

Matt, Head Teacher at St Peter’s Smithills Dean Primary School, said: “We had a great day competing in the ten-pin bowling. The children loved it and it was good to see some children compete who wouldn’t otherwise usually get involved.”

Schools who lack some resources have been borrowing equipment from Debbie in order to take part in some of the Panathlon disciplines. Debbie says: “A lot of school don’t have the inclusive sports equipment they need, but if borrowing it allows them to see the benefits it offers all of their children – not just the SEN kids – then they may well look at including things like boccia sets in this summer’s PE budgets.”

In many cases, school staff have thrown themselves into holding competitions after studying the Panathlon instructions and videos and having online training with Debbie. She said: “I explained to them that it doesn’t necessarily have to be perfect, it’s just about giving pupils the experience of sporting activity and competition. The staff just embraced it. We’re upskilling them and giving them new ideas. It’s been brilliant.”

Tony Waymouth, Panathlon’s Chief Operating Officer, commented: “We thank Debbie for the work she has done over the pandemic amidst the extreme situation in Bolton. Her support and expertise has given schools the confidence to get involved, knowing she will guide them through every aspect of staging their own events and meeting pupils’ needs at such a difficult time.”